Whilst I was flying back home on Monday through Tuesday after a week of the boxing in Las Vegas, I was well aware that it was also the first day of the last tennis Grand Slam of 2017.
And I had my eye on one opening-day match-up in particular. Maria Sharapova vs Simona Halep. Whilst I am aware of Sharapova’s awesome talent and ability to beat anyone on her day (with Serena Williams the only one who’s consistently troubled her), I felt that this would probably be a test too soon and too early for her, after her return to the tour. Especially considering she was playing an in-form, 3-time Grand Slam finalist, and this year’s French Open finalist.
I had actually predicted that Simona would win the whole thing (admittedly, I used a lot of heart over my head this time around, partly due to my being in ‘boxing mode’ in the month during the build-up to the Mayweather vs McGregor fight, the biggest ever event in combat sports’ history).
How wrong I was. And yet, I wasn’t all that surprised.
I remember the Sharapova of old, the one that won Wimbledon in 2004, aged just 17, and in those years that followed, hitting consistency and heights that others in the womens’ game, bar Serena Williams, struggled to reach.
Searching for podcasts for my journey back across the Atlantic, I just so happened to chance upon an interview from just 4 days ago, between the well-known Tim Ferriss (of The 4-Hour Workweek fame) and Maria Sharapova. Tim Ferriss gets some great guests on his podcast, and he has that interviewers’ knack for extracting some really great information, insights and stories from those he interviews.
I must admit, Maria Sharapova has always intrigued me. Whilst there are many Russians on the tennis circuit at the moment, there weren’t so many when she shot to fame with that Wimbledon win (Anna Kournakova had been the most well-known of that time), Maria was a breakthrough tennis act for her nation at the time. She also happened to be one of the first I saw on a big court, vs fellow Russian Petrova in the Wimbledon QF back in 2015.
And then there are the stories that have been widely circulated, like this one, of Sharapova being described as unfriendly and “cold” by other players on the tour, and seemingly garnering little sympathy from her tennis compatriots with respect to her drugs ban.
I wondered whether this was judgment of her was really the case, or simply a case of being misunderstood, with the added fact that, as a successful player, it is reasonable to expect a degree of envy and such hearsay from other players.
Enter last week’s conversation between her and Tim Ferriss.
Aged just 6, Maria and her father took a plane and a coach ride to Bradenton, Florida, to the famed Nick Bollettieri’s academy. We hear how, going to a foreign land and surroundings at such a young age, she felt like an outsider from the start, being the youngest of the other boys and girls at the academy, as well as from a faraway country.
Contrary to the “cold” persona, she describes herself as someone who is curious about people, and inspired by meaningful conversations. Whilst attending a Harvard Business School course last Summer, she likes to surround herself with others who are interested in growth in learning, as she is.
And she humbly describes how, in recent times, many people have come up to her and, rather than just ask for an autograph, have shared the impact she had had on them; not only does she seem humble, but also genuinely surprised about the extent of the effect she has had on others, and just how many. “Cold” connotes a lack of emotion and, by this point, I seemed fairly convinced that – unsurprisingly – Maria Sharapova was a warm human being with emotions after all. As ESPN’s D’arcy Maine wrote in her article, “For once, she acknowledged her own feelings and, more importantly, her vulnerability”.
Even before listening to this podcast, I had a feeling that was has happened in the last couple of years would give her a push, that she would be the sort of person spurred on by an event and setback like this rather than defeated by it. As a reminder, Sharapova was found to have taken a substance which had previously been legal, but had then been made illegal; Sharapova maintains she had overlooked this, had made an innocent mistake. Whilst we won’t ever know the truth, I do prefer to learn towards hope and compassion.
Maria Sharapova is an inspiration to many, including to girls and young women growing up in a world where many are still led to believe that they can’t, or shouldn’t, do or be certain things. Women’s sport is enjoying a refreshing – and much-needed – ascendancy, and athletes such as Maria Sharapova will continue to play a role by leading from the front and through their actions helping to display to womankind that anything is possible.
If anyone was in any doubt about Maria Sharapova’s commitment to the sport, her emotional reaction upon beating Simona Halep should say it all; she dropped to her knees, her body shaking and dabbing at her eyes as she stood up.
Tennis means the world to Maria Sharapova, and tennis can – in turn – benefit from her being back in the game, doing what she does, and loves, best.
Whilst Simona Halep had been my choice to go all the way in this year’s Final (I’m still calling her to win a Slam in 2018), I would not be overly surprised if Maria Sharapova went all the way, instead (and I say that as, at time of writing, she find herself a set down and struggling versus the tricky Hungarian, Timea Babos).
Let us focus on the good, give her the benefit of the doubt, and lean towards the good that Maria Sharapova playing tennis is doing for folks and girls everywhere. The doubters, naysayers, and full-on haters may only serve to fuel her ambition, just like feeling like an outsider from the tender age of 6 did, all those years ago…
PS. You can listen to the interview and read the show-notes, right here
Wednesday 30th August, 2017